words :: Lisa Richardson
photos :: Courtesy of Seija Halonen
Seija Halonen strikes you quickly as one of those rare people who have no skeletons in their closet. Not that she has room—costumes have long since spilled forth and taken over the entire basement of her off-grid home along the remote edge of Lillooet Lake where she lives with partner, pooch and incoming bambino. And frankly, she’d rather dance with a skeleton, or dress up as one (or as a dragon lady, a nymph, an Apocalypse woman), than stuff them in a closet.
Seija is the unofficial ambassador of radical self-expression, and her mental health offering to the world is to give you permission to give shape to what’s within—even if you have to wear a mask to make it so.
Maybe it was acting school. An Ontario kid and trained gymnast, she was intent on school in Vancouver as her ticket west, and auditioned for a gruelling acting program at age 19. Sixteen people made the cut from hundreds of hopefuls, and, to her great surprise, she was one of them. “The auditions were so weird. They weren’t necessarily looking for experience, but for your willingness to say yes and be directed. They watched your chemistry and how you interacted with different people.”
After her first year at Langara’s Studio 58, she took a semester off, at the behest of her teachers, to “get some life experience.” Seija’s interpretation was to move immediately to Whistler. Snowboarding every day and living in rental houses with up to 18 other people was probably not what her instructors had in mind, but when she returned to their scrutinizing gaze, it was obvious she had changed. Something had taken hold.
“They wanted me to become more grounded—and what’s more grounding than being completely in the moment, riding every single day, letting loose, meeting people, having fun, experiencing different things and relationships, and meeting people from all over the world? It worked for me!”
When she graduated, Seija realized that she hadn’t really been studying art or acting. She’d been studying life.
“The school constantly encouraged us to nurture our inner child as a way to access happiness. It’s not a career. It’s not money. What does everybody in the world want? They want to be happy. They want to love and be loved. Nothing else matters.”
There is no better place to experience such revelations than the great experiment of radical self-expression that is Burning Man. Seija attended with her employer, Canadian Wilderness Adventures, as the creative team’s bonus. There, her self-expression came fully unleashed. “Someone strapped a dinosaur tail on me one night. If you’ve never danced with a tail, well, it changes everything.”
So, she started stockpiling costumes. “Dressing up lets you be a little bit naughty, a little bit of a rebel. Putting on something you wouldn’t normally wear gives you permission to let that stifled bit of yourself out, especially if you’re wearing a mask.”
Sea to Sky people, she observes, know how to have a really good time, and follow their passions and do what they love. But they still often need the nudge of seeing someone else going big, to liberate their self-expression and release some of the stifled feelings that want out.
In the ten years she spent coaching gymnastics at the Whistler and Pemberton clubs, Seija tried to impart this to her students, helping the girls use their bendy bodies and favourite music to give expression to something unique within. She hopes it stays with them, the ability to “trust themselves, and not worry about all the distractions and clutter and things that try and put you in a small box that doesn’t let you live to your full potential.”
Just before she turned 33, Seija flew to Ottawa to support her father as he went through quadruple bypass heart surgery. The day before the surgery, he pushed her birthday gift toward her. Early—in case something happened. Choking up, she unwrapped a set of leather working tools. “After my dad’s surgery, my way of dealing with that scary experience was to pour all my energy into learning about the craft.” Freshly retired from coaching and already established as Aenahka Creations, a costumier and maker of headpieces, masks and wearable art, Seija doubled-down her focus on leather: masks, belts, knife sheaths, book covers, bracelets and cuffs.
These days, it looks as if a leather bomb exploded in her house. She loves that leather is a provenance of rock stars, cowboys, Vikings, bikers—a trademark of people who want to express their un-tameability. “It tends to do what it wants, despite your efforts to control it. If you’re willing to work with what it’s trying to do, it always turns out better.”
And while a large part of her creative output is practical, her passion is to craft pieces that take a creative journey with someone. “If a custom guitar strap, a rockin’ cuff or a mask gives you permission to be a bigger, more exaggerated version of yourself, mission accomplished. Sometimes you just need a ‘vessel’ of expression to let it out.” —ML